At various points during Jeff Sessions’ evasive testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, the attorney general made a startling admission: He had violated the scope of his recusal from the ongoing investigations into the 2016 presidential campaigns.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein drew out this confession most clearly by asking Sessions “how exactly” he was “involved in the termination of” former FBI Director James Comey. Sessions responded that “when Mr. Comey declined the Clinton prosecution, that was really a usurpation of the authority of the federal prosecutors in the Department of Justice. … He also commented at some length on the declination of the Clinton prosecution, which you should not do.” He elaborated:
There was a clear view of mine and of Deputy Attorney General [Rod] Rosenstein, as he set out at some length in his memoranda which I adopted and sent forward to the president, that we had problems there and it was my best judgment that a fresh start at FBI was the appropriate thing to do.
In other words, Sessions counseled the president to fire Comey at least in part because of the FBI director’s handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails.
As my colleague Leon Neyfakh pointed out on Tuesday, “the terms of Sessions’ recusal pledge were broader than he now wants us to believe.” Here’s the key line from the attorney general’s recusal statement:
I have decided to recuse myself from any existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for President of the United States.
Yet in Sessions’ version of the story—which he has now relayed under oath—he and Rosenstein probed Comey’s management of the Clinton investigation, decided it was deficient, and advised the president to fire Comey. That conduct obviously contravenes Sessions’ promise to stay away from any existing investigations “of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for President of the United States.” (Emphases mine.)
Multiple senators questioned Sessions about his involvement in Comey’s firing, focusing on Donald Trump’s declaration that the Rosenstein letter was pretext and that he’d actually terminated Comey because of the investigation into Russian interference. Sen. Mark Warner, for example, told Sessions: “You recused yourself from the Russia investigation and participated in the firing over the handling of that same investigation. We want to ask how you view your recusal and whether you believe you complied fully.” Sen. Ron Wyden mentioned that Sessions “stepp[ed] aside from the Russia investigation” while continuing to engage in it, wondering whether this behavior might violate Sessions’ recusal.
But Sessions did not simply recuse himself from “the Russia investigation”; he recused himself from “any matters related in any way” to both campaigns. Obviously, that includes the Clinton campaign and the email investigation. Yet on Tuesday, Sessions said he’d joined Rosenstein in scrutinizing the Clinton investigation then citing it as the basis for Comey’s firing.
After a while, it became clear that most senators, Democrat and Republican, didn’t understand the scope of Sessions’ recusal. Sens. Cornyn and Collins explicitly stated that Sessions had recused himself from “the Russia investigation” rather than investigations into both presidential campaigns. Sessions did not correct them. In fact, he seemed to capitalize on their confusion by suggesting that he was “recused for a single case.” He was not; he was recused from every case involving the campaigns. That includes the Clinton case, which, again, served as the basis of his recommendation for Comey’s termination.
Why does Sessions now wish to narrow the scope of his pledge? The simplest explanation is that in the mad rush to come up with some pretense to fire Comey, Sessions himself forgot the breadth of his recusal. Given Republicans’ apparent lack of interest in prying the truth out of Sessions, the attorney general may never have to answer for this oversight. But that doesn’t mean he should be let off the hook for flouting the one thing—his own recusal pledge—that ostensibly prevents him from meddling in the FBI’s investigations.